Top 10 Places to Visit in Bratislava, Slovakia
Obscured for centuries under the shadow of Hungarian and Austrian overlords and given second billing during Slovakia’s 70-year marriage to its Czech cousins next door, the Slovak capital city of Bratislava is only now catching on as a tourist destination in its own right 25 years after the break-up of Czechoslovakia. The city may be diminutive in comparison to next door Vienna and Budapest further south, but the pedestrian-friendly and compact old town, and the wider city in general has enough to keep visitors here for more than a couple days. Here for starters we list 10 top places to visit in Bratislava.
1/ Bratislava Castle
Bratislava’s city castle has famously been likened to an upended bedstead, though given its squat appearance it’s perhaps more like a white leather-upholstered ottoman playing dead. What it lacks in crenellations, battlements and spires it makes up for with sheer obdurate bulk – like a bull-necked, wide-girthed WWF wrestler with an impossibly low centre of gravity doggedly refusing to give quarter.
Up close it’s actually a bit more decorative than seems at first sight, especially the Court of Honour around the front entrance of the castle which features a sparkling new statue of Svatopluk the Great, who was the ruler of Great Moravia when attained its maximum territorial reach in the late 800s.
The castle was a vital point in the Hungarian crown’s defensive network for centuries from when the first stone castle was erected in the 10th century, and it was one of the few to withstand attacks from the Mongol hordes in the 13th century. By the early 16th century it had become the actual seat of the Hungarian crown after Hungary had been conquered by Ottoman Turkey, although Hungary was by then effectively ruled by the Austrian Hapsburgs. Under the latter, the castle underwent Renaissance and Baroque conversions. Maria Theresa spent a lot of time there, but after her death it lost its importance until it was nearly destroyed in a fire in 1811. It was left in ruins for the next 140 years until finally restoration to return it to its former Baroque appearance was begun in 1953. These days it houses a division of the Slovak National Museum.
2/ St Michael’s Gate & SNP Square
The only gate preserved from the city’s medieval fortifications, St Michael’s Gate originates from around 1300 and is therefore one of the oldest extant structures in Bratislava – or least its foundations are, since it was razed to the ground and rebuilt in the 18th century. This was one of only four heavily fortified gates guarding entry into the walled town, and although the drawbridge has long gone you can still get a hint of the old moat from Michael’s Bridge up and around the corner through the Barbican.
The tower is named after St Michael’s Church that once stood near the gate outside the city walls. Michael was either the leader of heaven's forces in their triumphant battle over the forces of hell, or the angel of death who carries the souls of all the dead to heaven. As the head of God’s army, it’s therefore apt that today’s tower houses a mildly diverting Museum of Arms. You can also get good views of the city’s roofscape from the balcony on the sixth floor.
And just past Michael’s Bridge you’ll find Náměstí SNP (Slovak National Uprising Square) where the first independent Slovak state was declared at midnight on 31 December 1992. The square was previously named Chlebový (Bread) and Zelený (Green) Market, Hydinový (Poultry) Market, Market (Trhové) Square, indicating its utilitarian value over the centuries until the names became more political with the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm II Square and even post-1945 Stalin Square. It was renamed in honour of the WWII anti-Nazi uprising in 1962 in an attempt to burnish the nation’s anti-fascist credentials and fudge its role as a Nazi satellite from 1939-45. There’s an affecting bronze statue at the top of the square today depicting a Slovak partisan with two female figures in the background, one defiant and one fearful.
3/ The Blue Church
St Elizabeth’s Church (or simply the Blue Church for good reason) is a wonderful example of Art Nouveau (or Hungarian Secessionist) architecture and, with its multiple shades of blue ‘icing’ and decorative elements on the outside and baby-blue pews on the inside, it has to be the prettiest church in Bratislava.
The church is consecrated to St Elizabeth, a medieval princess and saint, and a native of Bratislava who allegedly risked her rank by giving alms to the poor. There is a mosaic above the main door depicting a miracle she performed.
The ‘father of Hungarian Art Nouveau’, Ödön Lechner, was commissioned to design a church in the name of St Elizabeth in 1907 and by 1913 he had completed it using Zsolnay tile patterns inspired by old Magyar and Turkic folk art, playfully combining oriental, Romanesque and classical features. He also designed the very attractive grammar school next door.
4/ Slovak National Uprising Bridge & the UFO Tower
The most glaringly obvious aspect of Bratislava is the arterial scar that disfigures the centre of the city between the old town and the castle in the form of the main motorway that runs directly past St Martin’s Cathedral and over the Danube River toward the Petržalka housing estate. This road and the bridge that connects the two sides of the river is the most prominent architectural legacy of the former Communist regime in Bratislava. Construction of that road resulted in the destruction of the city’s Jewish quarter, but what has taken its place can’t be ignored and now defines the post-independence Slovak capital.
SNP Most, to give it its Slovak name, is the 7th largest hanging bridge in the world. It is also the world's longest cable-stayed bridge to have one pylon and one cable-stayed plane. Built between 1967 and 1972, it also comes with a flying saucer-shaped cupola on top of its single pylon, hence its name, the UFO Tower, which offers a panoramic view of all Bratislava from the open-air observation deck on top. If you’re a H. G. Wells fan you might think the tower is highly representative of the alien fighting machines from The War of the Worlds, “like boilers on stilts…striding along like men”.
The cupola contains a somewhat overpriced restaurant with a men’s room that boasts buckets for urinals. To access the restaurant and observation tower you need to purchase a ticket and ascend using an elevator located in the eastern pillar of the pylon. The west pillar houses an emergency staircase with 430 stairs.
5/ Museum of Viticulture
Housed within Apponyi Palace next to the town hall in the old town, the Museum of Viticulture also boasts wine-tasting for an additional fee. Before you get to the degustation part, however, the museum provides an interesting historical overview of the cultivation of vines and the production of wine in the Bratislava region and further afield in Slovakia. It traces the history of viticulture, the cultivation of vines, harvesting and the process of winemaking within the territory of the city from antiquity up to the present day.
When you first enter the museum you’ll find a few exponents on the ground floor exhibiting how wine growing and subsequent libation has been executed out over the centuries, including wine menus from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The ladies at the ticket office might then want to usher you upstairs through the Museum of Period Rooms, but if we’re brutally honest those upper floors are unlikely to capture your imagination unless you’re an interior decoration researcher or a film location manager looking for inspiration for period sets. If it’s really fermented grape juice you’re interested in then head down into the basement where Michaela and her colleagues will introduce you to some wonderful Slovak varietals and discuss their attributes in knowledgeable detail while pouring you generous measures for your appraisal.
6/ Slovak Radio Building
The Slovak Radio building, shaped like an inverted pyramid and looking at night time like the wifi signal on your smart phone, has infamously been ranked among the ugliest buildings in the world. Ugliness, however, is in the eye of the beholder.
Derided or lauded in equal measure, the radio building started out as part of a high-minded Communist era urban planning concept called the Transverse Axis, a 90-metre-wide city boulevard passing from the Main Railway Station to the cultural and social centre of Bratislava. Like many well-conceived but poorly executed concepts, however, it was never been fully realised and only a few fragments, including the Slovak Radio building, were built.
The structure was built at a time when socialist realism still dominated in the Eastern Bloc countries. Twenty-two years passed between the germination of the project and the construction of the building itself. Two rounds of architectural design competitions took place in 1962 and 1963, but it was the third placed design that was awarded the construction contract. Planning began in 1967 and construction was completed in 1983, using what were then cutting-edge technologies and design principles.
Although there are more buildings around the world designed as inverted pyramids (such as the Tempe City Hall in Arizona, the Clancy Real Estate Group building in Phoenix, the Hanoi Museum or the Piere building in Florida) the Slovak Radio building is unique in that it was designed specifically for the needs of radio. In fact, it is not simply one upside-down pyramid, but two pyramids with one inserted into the other with all the requisite noise-free space, recording studios, concert halls, and sound editing rooms located within the interior pyramid. The exterior pyramid acts as a sound curtain protecting the purity of the sound required for radio. Another unique feature is the 12,000m3 concert hall studio, which is suspended on springs within a concrete body.
Debate rages today over whether to classify the building as a National Cultural Heritage monument to help finance the reconstruction and maintenance of the building now that the technologies it uses are out of date. Whatever your personal opinion of the aesthetics of the radio building, there’s little doubt that it represents unique architectural, technical and cultural heritage in a European capital city not otherwise known for many architectural landmarks.
7/ Kamzik Television Tower
Far and away the highest point around Bratislava, the Kamzik Television Tower is much closer to the city centre than it seems at first. It’s easy to get to and it offers fantastic 360-degree panoramic views of Bratislava, the Danube River and the surrounding countryside. Built in 1975, the 196m tower resting on a 447m (1,434 ft) hill is meant to resemble a wine bottle in homage to the Little Carpathian wine industry, but you might struggle to see the similarity.
The tower doesn’t have a designated viewing platform like the UFO Tower on SNP Bridge, but its excellent revolving restaurant, Altitude, and its brasserie one floor higher provide views that are incomparably better than what you get from the UFO cupola. Altitude doesn’t appear that popular with the tourist set, but its meals are nonetheless excellent and the prices are very reasonable in comparison to the UFO Tower.
To get there it’s a very simple matter of catching trolley bus no.203 from Hodžovo námestie to the final stop, Koliba (15min), and then taking a very pleasant 30min stroll up through the forest park. That forest park is also the gateway to some excellent hiking opportunities in the Little Carpathian mountain range.
8/ Danubiana Meuelensteen Art Museum
Located in the Bratislava suburb of Čunovo fewer than 15 kilometres south of the city centre on the edge of a peninsula where the Danube flows, the Danubiana Meuelensteen Art Museum is one of the newest museums of modern art in Europe. Constructed in 2000 on its own 8,000m2 island park, the island itself is meant to represent the shape of a Roman galley anchored in the shallows of the river.
While there are 60 sculptures to view in the open park space, inside on the ground floor you’ll find a gallery of contemporary art where some exhibits are also on sale. Shows by leading international artists are alternated in the great hall on the first floor. The permanent exhibition features works using different mediums from both Slovakia and the collection of the Dutch founder of the museum, Gerard Meulensteen, which includes Dutch post-war modern art, Austrian artists, Hungarian avant-garde painters of the 1960s, and other renown artists from Spain, France, Serbia and China.
In the summer months between May to October boats carry visitors up the Danube from Bratislava to the museum, but at other times of the year you can catch bus no.91 from SNP Bridge to Čunovo, or bus 90 from outside the New Slovak National Theatre directly to Danubiana.
9/ Slavín War Memorial
Slovakia witnessed some of the hardest fought battles of the closing stages of the Second World War when German forces desperately tried to stanch the Red Army and Slovak partisan onslaught from the east. Tens of thousands fell at Dukla Pass and other sites throughout the country, while nearly 7,000 alone died in the ferocious battle to liberate the city of Bratislava itself. The Slavín War Memorial, built on a prominent hill in the wealthy villa district north of the city, not only commemorates those fallen soldiers, but also contains their remains in a series of mass graves.
The monument was constructed in the late 1950s and opened on 3 April 1960 on the 15th anniversary of the city’s liberation. The major battles of the liberation struggle from 1944 to 1945 are listed on the walls of the main monument containing a symbolic sarcophagus made of white marble. On top of the 39.1 metre high central column stands an 11 metre high sculpture of a Soviet soldier raising the Soviet flag and crushing a Nazi swastika under his foot. The mass graves are in the form of raised grassy mounds in front of the central monument. Signs in Slovak tell visitors to keep off them.
Vladimir Putin visited Slavín in 2005 during his summit meeting in Bratislava with President George W. Bush.
10/ Devin Castle
Although Napoleon himself ordered its destruction in 1809 as part of an enforced regional demilitarisation programme, the ruins of Devin Castle remain rather well preserved. Occupying a breathlessly romantic spot on the edge of a small but precipitous cliff at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers, the castle's history is bound up with some of the greatest Slavic legends, including the saints Cyril (he of Cyrillic script fame) and Methodius, who are said to have begun their holy mission from here, and the empire of Great Moravia, of which Devin formed its defensive core.
The ancient name of the castle (Dowina) stems from the Slavic word ‘deva’ (girl), which is apposite considering the much photographed watchtower, known as the Maiden Tower, has generated many a legend relating to virginal lovelorn daughters imprisoned in the tower who eventually jumped to their deaths. And on that tragi-romantic note, it has also served as inspiration since the 19th century for several Romantic poets and followers of Ľudovít Štúr, leader of the Slovak national revival in the 19th century and the man who did most to standardise the Slovak language. Devin is thus a potent national symbol for the Slovaks.
As the castle stands just inside Slovak territory on the frontier between Slovakia and Austria, it also lay immediately adjacent to the Iron Curtain between the Eastern Bloc and the West prior to 1989. Although the castle was open to the public, the area surrounding it constituted a restricted military zone, and was heavily fortified with watchtowers and barbed wire. These days that Iron Curtain legacy is commemorated in a monument below the castle symbolically riddled with bullet holes representing the violent nature of the former border area and the many people who died attempting to cross it.
Bratislava and its environs are well worth a dedicated visit as an alternative to the crowded tourist attractions in other Central European hotspots. If you’re interested in going there for a few days and seeing the 10 top places to visit in Bratislava, contact one of the travel consultants at Go Real Europe and they’ll be more than happy to draft up a travel itinerary for you.
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